‘Black hole’ training and unexpected acupuncture: How to build endurance and avoid injury

Hip pain female runnerNever has the term ‘a blessing in disguise’ seemed so pertinent to me as this week, when I finally conceded that the pain in my hip and lower back was severe enough to take a break from running and get some professional advice.

Okay, so maybe ‘a blessing’ is a slight exaggeration, but sometimes it takes an injury, or a similar setback, to realise that there is something awry in your training regime, bio-mechanics, running form, or in my case, all of the above, and to give you the incentive to get on and do something about it.

A year on from my last big injury (and hopefully a year wiser), I’m being a lot more pragmatic about what I should and shouldn’t do in terms of training while in pain. Yes, I want to make sure I’m fit for the marathon in April, but I also want to be able to walk, sleep and swim pain free, and, most pressingly right now, I want to be in good shape to go on my skiing holiday, which is less than two weeks away.

Unexpected acupuncture

So this weekend I went to see a physiotherapist and, after being diagnosed with hip bursitis on my left side (that is, the inflammation and swelling of the fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between the tendons and bones of my hip), and a very tight ITB on my right (read more about ITB issues and treatments here), I’ve agreed to take a week off from running.

AcupunctureAfter working through the range of movements in both of my legs and studying my gait, the physio concluded that, despite all of the work I’ve been doing to strengthen my core and glutes, when I get fatigued during training they are still not firing as they should, and as a result my back and hips are taking the strain. I’ve been given a series of exercises that work deep into my stomach muscles, as well as those in my bottom, to begin to redress the balance and try to undo some of the bad habits I’ve formed. To help with the immediate pain, I also had my first ever session of acupuncture.

I hadn’t gone to the therapist expecting to undergo this treatment and I have to admit to being quite in the dark about the science behind it, so I was keen to grill him with questions as he put the needles along my ITB and into my feet.

Although the narrative for how acupuncture works differs depending on whether you are coming from an eastern or western medical tradition, the general process is that the needles act to stimulate the nerves and muscles tissue and, depending on your view, either lead to the release of pain-relieving substances, such as endorphins, or restore the free flow of Qi through the body’s meridians, in both cases reducing pain.

Some further reading suggests that although the exact mechanics of how the process works are still not fully understood from a western perspective, there is enough evidence that it is sufficiently efficacious when it comes to pain relief to be offered as a complimentary treatment on the NHS as well as in private practice.

From my personal experience the acupuncture had two primary outcomes: the first was psychological in that I felt that someone was actively doing something to help relieve the pain I was feeling, and this alone left me feeling more positive about situation. Secondly, where my muscles were particularly sore or tight, I could feel them spasm and fill with a dull ache as the needles entered my legs and hips, but this then lessened as I lay on the bed and although my hip was still sore after the treatment, the other muscles in my legs felt less tender post-treatment.

I was sufficiently curious about the process to book in for a second session this week and in the meantime I’m keen to learn more. I am also on a course of ibuprofen and icing, alongside my rest period, so it will be difficult to tell what ultimately brings the inflammation down, but providing the final outcome means that I can run the Finchley 20 next week I’m happy to try out being a human pincushion for now.

Black hole training

As it happened, this recent injury also coincided with my discovery (via the Ben Greenfield podcast) of the concept of ‘black hole training’ (also known as running ‘junk miles’), that is performing all of your training sessions at a single intensity – hard enough that you feel that you’ve done something worthwhile, but not really hard enough that you are going beyond your lactate threshold or elicit any significant training response. This type of training is characterised by 3-5 sessions a week, normally for between 45 and 60 minutes, running the same routes, at the same pace, pretty confident you know how you will feel at the end of the session.

Sound familiar? It did to me, and I was horrified to discover that this is in fact the absolute worst kind of training for improving performance and maximising fat loss. Moreover, it is the kind of training most associated with injuries.

On top of this, studies have shown that this kind of training may also lead to hormonal disruptions including testosterone deficiency and low libido in males, oestrogen deficiency and low bone density in females and a disruption in your appetite.

Now, had I not been suffering with an injury at the time of hearing all of this, my interest in this critique of single tempo training may have stopped there. But as I listened to Greenfield explain the mechanics of how and why this type of training is essentially bad for you, the pain shooting through my hip and up into my back (I happened to be listening while on a run), forced me to take note.

And the thing is, I’m not alone in being lost in this black hole. Many recreational exercisers, particularly those who don’t have coaches, tend to gravitate towards this comfortable middle ground, not going anywhere near slow enough on their easy days to allow for recovery and to avoid over-training, and certainly not going hard enough on their tough days to stimulate the necessary response to get significantly fitter or faster.

Rather than sitting on the exercising fence, Ben Greenfield recommends an 80/20 ‘polarised training’ approach. In a number of studies where two groups of athletes were put on programmes with the same volume of training but where one group polarised their sessions, working at a very high intensity for approximately 20% of the time and at a low intensity for approximately 80% of the time, and the other group gravitated towards a majority of moderate intensity sessions, it was seen time and time again that the athletes who polarised their training showed a more significant augmentation in overall performance, be that in running, cycling or swimming.

As Greenfield observes:

Despite the fact that it feels very rewarding to roll up your sleeves and head out to the door to hammer at or near your threshold for a morning or lunchtime run, or ride at a steady “race pace” intensity for a few hours on the weekend, or swim lap-after-lap in the pool at your perceived Ironman intensity, it’s simply the wrong way to train.

HIIT Training

So, how do we optimise the 20% high intensity training sessions without devoting our whole lives to exercising? That is where HIIT comes in.

High intensity interval training (or HIIT) has been shown to increase your V02 max, mitochondrial density and oxidative enzyme volume and efficiency, increasing your capacity to train harder for longer. This increase in oxidative enzymes can also change your metabolism, increasing the rate at which your body oxidises fat during exercise, resulting in more efficient fat burning (as opposed to burning of carbohydrates) during exercise.

What is more, HIIT can also increase your post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) (the mythical ‘after-burn’ effect) meaning that after a HIIT session your oxygen consumption, and thus the total amount of calories you burn after the  actual workout, remains elevated as your working muscle cells restore physiological and metabolic factors in your cells to their pre-exercise levels.

So why not just train at a high intensity and skip the long slog cardio? It seems that what HIIT doesn’t improve, unlike long bouts of easier, aerobic training, is you maximal cardiac output – that is the measurement of the largest amount of blood your heart can pump in a given amount of time. This is why, to optimise your training – ‘maximizing your much blood your muscles can utilize (with HIIT) but also by maximizing how much blood your heart can send to your muscles (with aerobic training)’ – you need to combine long and steady workouts with your higher intensity sessions.

As Greenfield writes:

HIIT works more effectively on your peripheral muscle fitness while endurance training works more effectively on your central, cardiovascular fitness.

The good news for me is that while I can’t run at the moment, I can cycle, swim and perform a series of weight baring and body-weight exercises without pain, all of which can be combined to form a pretty efficacious HIIT session.

So what does a good HIIT session look like? I’ll save that for another post.

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A new vegan cake fuelling system for marathon training?

108 Pantry, Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea at 108 Pantry

With Lent now in full swing I debated writing a post about abstinence this week. Whether it’s cutting back on a vice such as alcohol or caffeine, laying off the chocolate or avoiding sugar, being abstemious, and knowing that you can do without one thing or another, can be incredibly empowering.

Indeed, since the yoga retreat in early January, I’ve seriously cut down on my caffeine and alcohol intake, with the biggest change being the switch from coffee to herbal and green tea. I really do feel (and sleep) a lot better for it, and now I know that I can power through a day at work or an early morning run without recourse to several vats of black coffee. Moreover, with our wedding now edging nearer and nearer, I’ve been trying to eat well and mindfully, with chia seeds and oats or a green juice for breakfast, soup or salads at lunch, fruit and raw nuts in between and vegetable stews, stir fries and grains for supper.

However, amidst all of this good behaviour, I have to admit that I may have had a few rather indulgent weekends, with recent visits from family members offering up ample opportunities for vegan-friendly afternoon teas.

I thought it would be remiss of me not to report back on such good vegan fare, particularly in the realm of afternoon tea, which is notoriously unfriendly for the dairy and egg-free amongst us. So this year for Lent I’m (temporarily) giving up my healthy-halo and writing not about abstinence, but rather about indulgence.

Vegan Afternoon Tea
Vegan option, afternoon tea

The weekend before last my sister was in town to celebrate her birthday. We had theatre tickets for the Friday evening and plans for a cinema trip and a spot of shopping on the Saturday, so a decadent Saturday afternoon tea seemed to sit quite nicely amidst our leisurely schedule. Wanting to try somewhere new, I decided to book us in at 108 Rooms in Marylebone. I’d not been before, but it looked lovely from the website and I spotted that they offered a vegan-friendly afternoon tea alongside their indulgent and classic options.

The restaurant was really lovely – light and airy with attractive décor and a good atmosphere – and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. We opted for the ‘indulgent’ versions of our respective teas, which meant champagne and strawberries! I knew I had a 17 mile run scheduled for the next day so I stuck to one glass, but my sister, Jo, and our friend Sarah both had a sneaky top up. Sarah also ordered an Americano instead of tea and the staff happily refilled her coffee as they did our teas.

My sandwiches were really flavourful and included hummus and red pepper, crushed avocado, and a tomato and onion chutney with rocket. The regular (non-vegan) sandwiches included all of the traditional options, with smoked salmon, egg and cucumber. There were plenty to choose from and they were topped up as quickly as we could eat them! These were followed by mini scones with jam and strawberries (plus cream for the dairy option) and a selection of vegan cakes – a blueberry-topped cheesecake, a chocolate truffle, a coconut and lemon bonbon and another chocolate cake, which I didn’t even have space to taste.

We ended up staying for a good three hours, and while we were well-attended to, we weren’t hurried at any point. Needless to say we were all really rather full by the time we left!

It was with the knowledge of all of that cake in my stomach that I powered around my run the following day, covering just over 18 miles; slightly further than I had planned and at a faster pace than usual. This made me wonder: could afternoon tea be the way forward in my fuelling strategy?

I didn’t have long to wait to test this theory as the following weekend when R’s mum came to visit us, R booked us all in for another afternoon tea.

Vegan Afternoon Tea, La Suite West
Vegan afternoon tea, La Suite West

After a lovely morning at the Wellcome Collection exploring the two new exhibits: Tibet’s Secret Temple – about the mind, body, meditation and Tantric Buddhism – and States of Mind – in which artists, psychologists and neuroscientists interrogate our understanding of the conscious experience – (both well worth a trip), we headed to La Suite West, just off Hyde Park, for a vegan afternoon tea at the restaurant there.

The menu included a delicious sandwich selection of scrambled tofu and mustard cress, portobello mushroom pate, lemon and thyme tahini and cucumber, roast tomato with sunflower seed pesto and avocado chilli mousse with rocket. These were followed by warm home-made scones served with strawberries and coconut cream and finally a selection of chocolate, ginger and lemon cakes.

The whole menu was vegan, but even the non-vegans amongst us couldn’t tell the difference when it came to the cakes; it was all too tasty!

Vegan scones with coconut cream and strawberries
Vegan scones with coconut cream and strawberries

However, while I loved the sandwiches, I have to admit that the last piece of cake might have been a step too far. I don’t usually eat a lot of sweet foods and the sugar crash later that evening and the next morning reminded me why not.

Still, I powered through a somewhat less successful 13 miles on the Sunday, reminding myself of the calories that needed to be burnt and slightly cursing myself for such a splurge the day before. My afternoon-tea fuelling method seriously failed me in week two and after a couple of weekends of indulging and feeling a little disheartened from my less than successful long run, I was actually pretty glad to get back to the soups and fruit again this week.

Cutting yourself some slack from time to time, and scheduling an indulgent weekend (or two), can actually offer the pressure valve effect you need to maintain your healthier routine the rest of the time. Knowing that things aren’t ‘banned’ but that you are choosing not to eat them, and by extension that you may choose to eat them on occasion, seems to make them less desirable. It is also interesting to be reminded of how much better your body feels when you are fuelling it on healthy food-stuffs rather than sugar and refined carbohydrates and how a sugar spike can lead to dips in energy, mood and, for me, the post-sugar shakes!

So for now it is back to the healthier me, and all the more so since my wedding dress fittings this weekend. More on that to follow, but for now, happy indulging, fasting, or just regular eating!

Brain Pickings: On thinking fast and running slow

Last week I struggled with my long run. The issue was not so much physical as mental. I found myself counting down every kilometre, my mind jumping from fatigue, to boredom, to hunger (I’m still running fasted, although with my distances mounting I think I’m reaching the tipping point at which I can do this) and, although my splits were no different than usual, each kilometre seemed to go on for twice as long. I pushed through 25 kilometres, as I’d planned, and while it wasn’t a bad run, it was just that little bit tougher than I would have liked. I chalked it up as good marathon day practice – a reminder of what a run with my head in the wrong place could feel like – and resolved that this week I would work as hard on my mind as on my limbs to prepare me for my long run.

In the week I listened to an interview with the Runners Connect coach Jamie Dodge, in which she had placed emphasis on enjoying the journey while running, both during training and in races. She noted that many runners, when they cross the finish line, are more keen to tell the stories of the various things that happened during the race – the people they met, the spectators cheering them on, the scenery, the route – than to obsess over their final times, and I count myself within this group. Listening to her made me realise that the journey really is the important part for me; I love being able to go out and just run. I like being able to escape on a run, listening to podcasts or music as I go or to run and chat with friends as we pound the pavements together.

It was with this idea of just enjoying the journey in mind that I set out on my long run this Sunday. I was slightly anxious about keeping my mind on course, but as it was I needn’t have worried. I had downloaded a series of podcasts and within seconds I was totally engrossed in the first: an episode of Radio Headspace featuring an interview with Maria Popova.

brainpickings

You know the feeling when you hear, read or watch something and you suddenly feel like you want to share that thing with everyone? That was how I felt listening to Maria Popova speak. She is the creator of Brain Pickings, a website which began as an email newsletter to seven friends and which now has over seven million visitors each month. As Georgie Okell, presenter of Radio Headspace described it, Brain Pickings is an ‘online archive of interestingness, inspiration and meaning’.

The idea originated out of, on the one hand, Popova’s idealism of what learning could be and, on the other, a dissatisfaction with her college liberal arts education, which wasn’t the edifying experience she had hoped for. In search of something more, she supplemented her classes with long visits to the library, reading and reading some more, dipping into different disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy, and allowing the cross-pollination of ideas from one subject area to the next. In this way, Brain Pickings became a permanent online record of her own thinking and personal development, while at the same time becoming a source of inspiration for her readers.

I would urge readers here to explore the site and to listen to the interview, but before you do I wanted to touch on some of the points that really resonated with me.

On communication 

Popova’s comments on communication really struck a chord as they outlined behaviours that I often find myself guilty of. To read and write and truly engage with the material that goes into Brain Pickings, Popova noted that she has to close her inbox and cut herself off from the constant beeping of emails, text messages and social media updates. She observed that communication today has a sense of immediacy which creates a false sense of urgency, and while we know that this sense of urgency is a fictional product of the technological environment we live in, we all still find ourselves buying into it. We live in a world of reactivity, where people are so quick to form judgements and to act on those judgements, reacting rather than reflecting and responding. It is important to recognise this and to take a step back when we can, to allow our mind to explore our thoughts and ideas properly, and to observe and listen to the world without the need to trigger a response.

On writing

This sense of immediacy of information and the urgency to react extends beyond emails and text messages to much of the content we encounter online. The list-like content and catchy headlines of many articles and blog posts demand our attention, promising instant information requiring only minimal engagement. We are attracted by so-called ‘click-bait’; short-form material engineered to catch our eye rather than to generate appreciation or understanding. The result is that many people ‘mistake attention for appreciation’.

Popova aims to move away from this approach to writing and her site includes more and more long-form pieces where, as she explains, ‘there is an opportunity to explore nuance, clarity and context’.

On meditation 

One means of extracting ourselves from this culture of urgency and immediacy is through meditation. Popova observes that ‘the beautiful thing about meditation is that it’s a reminder of how to be in yourself and in the world without this compulsive reactivity.’ It is important to give yourself the space to take a step back and make an internal investment to be more reflective.

On reading

By reading and engaging with the experiences of others we are able to feel a resonance between our own experiences and emotions and those of others, across different times and spaces. Reading about emotions of love and doubt, hope and fear experiences by those around us, we may discover deeper meaning and a greater understanding of ourselves, and in doing so may feel less alone in our experiences.

On finding your path

Sometimes, when we encounter particular philosophical teachings, or learn from historical narratives, read about science and linguistics, literature and mathematics, something in our minds just click and we find ourselves exploring new paths or taking our lives in different directions. Sometimes it can be something as small as having a particular conversation with a person, or going on a retreat, or even listening to a podcast or radio show.

For some readers, Brain Pickings has acted as this apparent catalyst for change, of which Popova observes:

‘I’d be a fool to believe that I had catalysed whatever change someone has gone on. People are on their own path, and there are things that may help them to clarify that path, but I think they would have arrived anyway. But there is some reassurance in seeing things playing out in other people’s lives to act as a point of reference – in the lives of people that we as a society see as successful…People step into what they already are, they just find a context which makes it easier to access what is already in them.’

On purpose

One of the most profound comments from the piece was on finding your purpose in life. On this, Popova affirmed that you find your purpose by doing. She quoted the book Conversations with Picasso, in which Picasso observes that  ‘in order to know what you’re painting you have to begin to paint’. A lot of people are misled by the ‘fetish of finding their true purpose’ and it makes them afraid of going down the wrong path. The result is that instead of doing everything, people end up doing nothing.

Allowing yourself to accept that your life may not have one sole purpose, and that the one thing you deemed so important at 21 may not be the thing that matters to you as much at 31 or 41 frees you to ‘just live, with attentiveness and awareness of the world’, and discern from that what it is that gives you a sense of purpose.

‘If you come at everything with too much of a fixed plan you could cheat yourself out of so many things because you can’t envisage you future self’s values and how you will develop…Keep checking in with yourself, what brings you happiness and nourishes you.’

***

As you have probably gathered from this post, my mind was so active going over all of Papova’s words that my long run flew by; I will certainly be downloading some more Radio Headspace for my run on Sunday.

Happy running.

Embrace your bad runs, listen to your body and other wise words from the Runners Connect Podcast

Runners Connect - Run to the Top Podcast
Runners Connect – Run to the Top Podcast

This weekend, while I was searching for an audiobook to get me through my long Sunday run, I stumbled upon the Runners Connect Run to the Top podcast. Curious, I downloaded a couple of episodes while I had my pre-run cup of tea. Tea consumed, I pulled on an extra running top, laced up and headed out into a very chilly day, pressing play as I began my 12 miler.

The first episode was entitled Why it’s important to welcome bad runs. Like all runners, I’m all too familiar with bad running days; days when my legs won’t cooperate and when, despite feeling like I’m putting in my usual effort, my splits remain embarrassingly snail-like. In fact, I had had one such day that Saturday, and I was hoping above hope that my Sunday run would progress with the pleasant ease of that the previous week, rather than the huffing mess of the previous day.

As it was, I found myself so utterly distracted by the podcast that I didn’t notice the first few miles go past. While the audio quality wasn’t the greatest and the production was by no means as sleek as an episode of This American Life or Serial (my usual long-run podcasts of choice), the content was rich, interesting and engaging, and the presenter, the British elite runner Tina Muir, was endearing and instantly likable. After a slightly long and nervous introduction, the interview really got going. She was interviewing the CNN journalist, runner and author of My year of running dangerously Tom Foreman, who was one of the most inspiring speakers about running that I’ve heard, and I think may be one of my new running gurus!

'My Year of Running  Dangerously', Tom Foreman
‘My Year of Running Dangerously’, Tom Foreman

Back in 2010, while in his 50s, he got back into running in a big way, agreeing to join his 18-year-old daughter to train for, and run, a marathon. From marathon success, he continued his running journey, racing in multiple half-marathons, marathons and eventually ultramarathons.

Throughout the course of the interview he reflected on various aspect of running, from injury, to combining being a good runner with being a good family member, work colleague and friend. I don’t want to give away everything he said – rather I would compel you to please go and listen to the interview for yourself – but there were some particular titbits that have stayed with me which I wanted to include here.

On injury:

Having covered so many miles, what was surprising was how little injury Foreman had incurred. However he said that he ‘took very seriously the idea of incremental increases’, only gradually upping his distance to let his body adapt. His mantra was ‘the run that counts is tomorrow’s run’, meaning that you should never run so hard one day that you are either unable or unwilling to run the next, (race days are of course an exception to this rule!). He urged listeners to take every hint of a problem seriously; to be aware of twinges, to look after your joints and muscles, to be attentive to the possibility of getting injured and to reflect on the difference between discomfort – fatigue or a build-up of lactic acid – and injury.

He vaunted the importance of listening to your body; even when you think you should push through, the most sensible and valiant thing to do is to pull up slightly, keeping in mind that the aim is to get from a to b, and if that means going slightly sideways for a little while that is better than being forced to stop completely due to injury. And if you feel a twinge or a problem weeks before a race, you have to seriously ask yourself ‘how valuable this race to me?’ Because it may be that pushing on for that race will write you off for the next six months, so it is important to be realistic and think, is it worth it?

On bad runs:

In the interview, Foreman recalls a conversation he had with the Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones, who, on his first day at art school was told by his art instructor ‘each of you has 10,000 bad drawings in you, so let’s start drawings and get them out now’. Foreman observed that similarly, we all have an awful lot of bad running days in us and while some days you may feel exceptional and running feels like the best thing in the world, other days you may feel truly awful. On those awful days, however, it’s important to remember that as a rule of probability the next run you do is likely to be better, and rather than worrying about feeling heavy or tired, what you need to think is ‘thank goodness I’ve got that out of the way’.

It’s important to remember that the best athletes out there still have painful, awful days, but what makes them the best is that they accept that such days do not define their ability, they are just painful, awful days which they put behind them and move on to the next run to see if it’s any better.

On running a marathon:

Wisely, Foreman observed that a marathon is too long a race to do for anyone but yourself. You have to really want to do it, and to commit to it for more than just the time, or the medals. While those things are important to some extent, the essence of your drive should be the thought that ‘I’m out here to deliver the best I can, to engage the physics of this race as a human animal and deliver the best I can…the real goal is to reach that state that I’ve just run a beautiful race and expressed my human athleticism in the best way I could.’ And remember, in a big city marathon, like New York or London, there are over 50,000 people running and only one person gets to win, the rest of us have to run for something else.

On getting outside:

A man after my own heart, Foreman stressed that time outdoors matters. He observed that it is easy to look back on you days and realise you were never effectively outside. Running, however, gets you outside of the house and outside of your comfort zone. There is something very invigorating and freeing about being in a situation where it’s not the perfect temperature all of the time, or when that cup of tea or biscuit isn’t arm length away. Rather, running, in a range of weather conditions, allows you to engage with the bigger human experience.

On skipping training runs:

This little nugget was one which really resonated with me: on skipping runs, Foreman used the following rule of thumb: ‘If you are really busy or you have a family commitment and you really want to run but there just isn’t time, then it’s ok to skip that run. The run you can’t skip is the one you just don’t want to do, that’s when you have to go. You can’t give into that part of you. You are always better off for going for a run. Sometimes it takes a mile, sometimes it takes five miles before you feel better, but invariably, by the end, you will feel better.’

On balancing your running with the rest of your life:

Foreman advises, don’t worry about what people think of your running ability, if you are going to worry about anything worry about how your running impacts on you as a friend, colleague or family member. Foreman insists that ‘you have to make sure work as hard at your life as you do at your running’, and that’s not always easy. As his daughter observed in the book, ‘the challenge is not running a marathon, the challenge is running a marathon and not letting your life fall apart’. You need to strive for balance and make sure your workplace sees your running as something that makes you a better employee and that your family sees it as something that makes you a better family member.

This advice really struck a chord with me, as I know sometimes, when I’m deep into my marathon training programme, I can get slightly cagey about weekend activities, or protective of my evenings, and I just have to remember to try and make up for this when I’m training for shorter races and not to be too uptight if I have to tweak my schedule to fit a shorter run before work or over lunch.

While I’ve written more here than I had intended, as you can see, I was particularly inspired by this episode and will now be buying Tom Foreman’s book, My Year of Running Dangerously! Since I heard this episode of the Runners Connect podcast on Sunday, I have listened to 5 or 6 further episodes and would particularly recommend the episode with motivational speaker and marathon runner Dick Beardsley as well as the one with sleep expert Dr James Maas. Do check out the podcast as there is lots of really great content there and lots to keep you inspired on all of your runs.

Tina Muir also writes a blog about her running which can be found here.

Enjoy these and happy listening, reading and running!

Festive fit bits: Sleeping, eating, running and NutriBullet-ing

Christmas presents with my nephew Sebastian
Opening Christmas presents with my nephew Sebastian

Before I jump into a January ‘New Year’ type post, I wanted to write a quick round-up of the Christmas period, which has been especially heavenly.

After two blissful weeks away from the office, jam-packed with family and friends, good food, lots of sleep, running and relaxing, I now feel (almost) ready for the year ahead.

And this Christmas has shown that festivities and fitness don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Regularly getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night has proven that the dark circles under my eyes aren’t a permanent fixture and will disappear without oodles of concealer, if only I get to bed on time. For the last few weeks I’ve been hitting my 8 hour sleep targets regularly, much to the approval of my Jawbone Up and my body, which does actually seem to function without coffee, who knew?

Vegan cookbooks
Vegan cookbooks for a January of tasty treats!

My Christmas gifts – from people who clearly know me all too well – included, a NutriBullet (which has already had lots of use!), three new vegan cookbooks, a new steamer, a beautiful wooden salad bowl and an enormous new teapot. These are all very welcome additions to our household, which is currently surviving on a diet dominated by green gloop, as I’m still enjoying the novelty of NutriBullet-ing pretty much everything!

I had some very funky new running leggings, which I took out for a spin on Boxing Day, and marathon entry for the 2016 Potteries Marathon from my brother-in-law: I’m not yet sure if he loves me or hates me!

New jazzy leggings, en route to try out a new yoga centre
New jazzy leggings, en route to try out a new yoga centre

I also had some delicious Nakd bars and some Booja-booja truffles to fuel me though all of this wholesomeness.

While Christmas of course means more tasty tempting treats, and I did indulge in plenty of nuts (my ultimate downfall), a delicious vegan mince pie and a few glasses of mulled wine, being a vegan I think I escaped too much seasonal spread, as the bulk of our meals were based around vegetables, comforting jacket potatoes, salads and soups.

We also tried out some delicious vegetarian restaurants, visiting HanSas Gujarati in Leeds and Prashad in Drighlington, both well worth a visit if you are in West Yorkshire looking for some really indulgent, vegetarian Indian fare.

Training for the Brighton marathon provided me with the motivation I needed to get out and run over the festive period, when snuggling up in front of old movies in my parent’s all-too-cosy house seemed like a very tempting alternative.

Running buddies! Boxing Day run in the rain with my brother-in-law
Running buddies! Boxing Day run in the rain with my brother-in-law

Despite the flooding, rainy days and a horrid cold, I just about managed to stay on top of my programme, with a little help from my running buddies!

So now I’m almost ready to get back to work and jump into 2016. This coming year has some new sporting challenges – 2 marathons, learning to ski, a yoga retreat and a coast-to-coast walk are all on my to do list, and somewhere among them I will also be getting married!

Lots more marathon motivation, exercise tips, recipes, reading recommendations and (hopefully) some ‘shredding for the wedding’ secrets to follow.

But for now I’ll leave you with the most delicious breakfast smoothie recipe, adapted from Deliciously Ella, which I blitzed up in my NutriBullet after my long run this morning:

NutriBulletted breakfast smoothie with oats and spriulina
NutriBulletted breakfast smoothie with oats and spriulina

4 Brazil nuts
3 Dates (or 2 Medjool dates)
1 Banana (peeled and sliced)
40g Oats (Ella uses more, but I think this is plenty)
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Honey/Agave
1 tsp Spirulina powder

  • Place all ingredients into your blender cup.
  • Add a couple of ice cubes and top up with cold water to the max point on the cup.
  • Blitz for 40 seconds or until the mixture is totally smooth.

Happy blending!

Marathon training: here we go again 

Last week marked the start of my 2016 marathon training plan.

Just like last year, I am relying on a Hal Higdon schedule to get me through, and, just like last year, I’m totally terrified that I won’t be able to go the distance.

You would think that having run the HH training plan previously and having successfully completed a marathon I’d be less nervous now than I had been this time last year, but the success of Paris has added a new pressure: now it’s not just about proving to myself that I can run 26 miles, it’s about proving that I can do it faster than I’ve done it before.

Moreover, with the exception of one or two wet and windy longs runs, I really enjoyed my training plan for Paris and I’m nervous that this time around I’ll find it more difficult to motivate myself without the novelty of the ‘first-time marathoner’ to fall back on. I’m afraid that I’ll discover that training for a marathon is, well, just less fun. On top of this I don’t have my trusty training partners, the Twins in Trainers, to help spur me on this year as they are in marathon retirement, having got a good few marathons under each of their belts. There will be no gossipy chats on long runs, or the sharing of stories of various running-related ailments and injuries, no team to scoff bagels doused in peanut butter with, or to keep me calm on race day.

It was while mulling this over, that I started perusing the pages of ‘Runner’s World’ this weekend.

Reading running books and magazines always gives me a boost when I’m lacking in motivation or feeling that drag of self-doubt holding me back. I love to hear people waxing lyrical about running – talking about their best races, triumphs over adversity, or incredible running feats (or running feet! – sorry I couldn’t resist). Reading these stories just makes me want to put on my trainers and hit the road immediately! It also helps to hear that even the best runners have weaker moments too; knowing that others also have bad runs, or those days that they just don’t feel up to, it allows me to forgive myself and not just throw in the towel as soon as I feel sub-par.

In the December issue, an article by Sam Murphy about the value of ‘play’ as part of your training regime and the importance of enjoying your runs and of having fun while you train, really helped to motivate me in my training. This article was exactly what I needed to give me a boost as I recalled the fatigue brought on by 5 runs a week.

In the article, Murphy cited Chris McDougall and his book ‘Born to Run’. McDougall is keen to emphasise that growing as a runner isn’t just about hitting particular time targets or pushing to run longer distances; instead, he writes:

‘We need to figure out what we really mean when we talk about getting ‘better’ at running. Is the goal to get faster at the risk of burning out or getting injured? Or is it the ability to exercise every day for years on end and enjoy it so much that you can’t wait for the next run?’

I’m sure you’ll agree that the latter is infinitely preferable. By enjoying every run put ourselves in a better position to improve our technique and endurance, not only because we are likely to become more inclined to lace-up and get out, but also because we are more likely to listen to our bodies and to respond more mindfully to various niggles.

It was with this at the forefront of my mind that I eased into my first long run of this marathon season on Sunday. I took it steadily, enjoyed the scenery, my music and the newest episode of ‘Serial’ and by the end I had remembered why it was that I loved last year’s training so much.

It’s still early days but fingers crossed this continues.

Why it’s ok to be a tortoise 

No matter how fast you are, there will always be somebody somewhere who is faster.

These were wise words from a fellow Mornington Chaser at a cross country meet last week, as we discussed the relative merits and downfalls of our respective races. I was worrying about being slower than my other teammates and these words, from a super-speedy runner, made me realise that if my satisfaction from races was only to come as a measure of my pace relative to others, I was set on a path for perpetual disappointment.

So, instead of worrying about the people who may beat me across the finish line (which in my case is many), I’ve decided to set my focus on racing against myself; aiming for PBs and those fabled negative splits. That’s not to say that the race element is taken away completely, indeed nothing says motivation like a bit of healthy competition, but my objective is not to dwell on my relative position but my absolute level of improvement.

It was with this in mind that I ran the St Neots half marathon on Sunday. I had assigned this particular race as the watershed between casual summer running and the next round of winter training. With marathon training kicking off in December, I wanted to assess my fitness levels before I started, to see what I’m working with but also to set a pre-season time to beat.

While I’ve been running regularly since the Paris marathon last April and have had a few shorter races since then, this was due to be the first run over 10 miles that I’d done of late. If I’m honest, my main concern was whether I’d be able to finish. It may sound silly having regularly run over the 13.1 mile distance pre-Paris, but it’s amazing how quickly you can lose your fitness.

Still, despite the windy conditions I felt strong for most of the route. I started chatting with a guy at mile 4 and we ran together for a good 4 miles from that point.

There was a particularly tough uphill and head-windy stretch between miles 8 and 11 which almost finished me off. My pace dropped off a little and I had to dig deep. However, once we turned the corner out of the wind and headed along the final stretch the last two and a bit miles flew by. I was able to catch back up with my new running buddy, who was, by that stage, in need of a little encouragement himself, and we crossed the finish line together.

My splits were pretty consistent and unlike my normal half marathon times, my final few kilometres were on a par, pace wise, with my first.

I crossed the line having beaten my 20km PB and knocking 3 minutes off my half marathon PB, proving to myself that I can comfortably and consistently run a sub 2 hour half marathon.

I was elated as I rejoined some of my Morning Chaser teammates. It was testimony to how much I’m learning to work within my own parameters that when they expressed disappointment by their own sub 1.30 times I was able to lend a sympathetic ear, knowing full well I’d kill to have run that kind of time.

So now it’s on to a winter of training. I’ve already earmarked some long training runs, and have some times in mind. I’ve just got to remember to keep my eyes on my own goals and if I find myself overtaken along the way, not to get too disheartened and who knows, eventually I may be the one doing some of the overtaking.